Source Confusion

What is Source Confusion?

Source confusion, also know as source misattribution or unconscious transference, is a type of memory error. It occurs when someone does not remember where certain memories come from.


Matia Zarazoga and Sean Lane introduced the idea of source misattribution in a 1994 paper.

It stems from an inability to correctly evaluate the validity of information. We create pictures of things or events that are described to us. Over time it can become difficult to distinguish between a valid primary source (our own memory) and a secondary source, and one can replace the other.

Source confusion is often a cause of imagination inflation, whereby the imagining of an event which never really happened can increase the certainty that it did in fact occur. Information that is conjured up during an imagination is stored in our memory and might later be mistakenly recalled as a memory of something that actually happened.

Why is it important?

In the 1970s and 1980s, social science researchers showed that misinformation can lead to inaccuracy in eyewitness testimony- did you see the gun or did the officer tell you there was a gun? Source confusion can be especially strong with childhood memories. This creates problems in combination with the existence of repressed memories; is a recovered memory of child abuse a repressed memory or the result of source confusion?

Source confusion also applies to how we construct our understanding of the world. We disassociate the content of our knowledge from the source, so we are similarly confident in all content despite not being similarly confident in all sources. For example, while I trust the Washington Post more than a Facebook meme, the information I have gleaned from each is given similar validity later on.

It is potentially unsettling that a large part of what makes you who you are could be memories and experiences that aren’t really yours. However, source misattribution could actually be a useful human tool. It may allow us to apply lessons from experiences that we haven’t yet encountered ourselves (Schacter, 1999).


A woman named Nadean Cool went to therapy, and with the use of hypnosis and other techniques, realized that she had repressed childhood memories of being in a satanic cult, being raped, and much more. It was later found out that these memories were false, and had been planted by her psychologist. However, due to source confusion, Cool was unable to distinguish these suggestions from memories.

US President Ronald Reagan may have fallen victim to source confusion during his 1980 campaign when he recounted the story of a World War One hero which bore a striking resemblance to the movie “Wing and a Prayer”.

Brown and Marsh (2008) found that some people could be induced to think they had visited an unfamiliar place simply by being shown photos of that location.


Brown, A.S., & Marsh, E.J. (2008). Evoking false beliefs about autobiographical experience. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(1), 186-190.

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory. Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54, 182-203.

Zaragoza, M. S., & Lane, S. M. (1994). Source misattributions and the suggestibility of eyewitness memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(4), 934-945.

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